As we should all know, as of March 15 — in the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus locally — all bars and restaurants in Los Angeles County are closed to public gathering, limiting the businesses to take-out and delivery only.
“It blind-sided all of us… and now we’re scrambling.” Chef Onil Chibas of Deluxe 1717 is ruminating over the present reality and the future prospects for his erstwhile thriving catering business. Having just canceled a lucrative contract with the Colburn School for an event in April, he muses on the future.
“I think that catering is going to be dead for a while, so I need to think what would be next…” For restaurant operators, quickly pivoting to delivery and take-out was the only way to maintain staff and use perishable inventory. How sustainable this option is for any individual operation will depend on nimble decision-making, a loyal base of patrons, and actual quality and value.
[As a food writer, I don’t regard myself as a “critic.” When writing about restaurants, and chefs particularly, I always focus on people and establishments that I believe deserve positive attention and popular encouragement. I have no interest in broadcasting negative attention to anyone’s business. Particularly in this time — when the very foundation of the restaurant business at large is under direct threat — patronage and support of local restaurants by the general public is understandably being actively encouraged. That said, this period will inevitably elicit a major “correction” to the industry in how it conducts business, once dining rooms again open. Likewise, not every establishment has managed the current quick transition to take-out and delivery effectively or elegantly.]
For the benefit and enlightenment of our Pasadena Weekly readers, I will relate my recent experience of “Take-out.”
Hungry and with no dinner plan, I chose a place in my neighborhood that notably also offered wine as part of its take-out options. I might have given up, when my 6:15 p.m. phone call to order went to voicemail. Instead, I left my phone number on the message and hopped into my car for the five-minute drive east. A cheery young gentleman greeted me from six feet away at the reception desk and apologized profusely for the missed call. After asking, he offered me the menu (but not the wine list.) Yes, wine list. Ostensibly a “fine dining” restaurant — I had already dined here several times before, frankly with quite mixed experiences — I was curious how they were adapting to the new altered landscape and ordered without prejudice or expectation (despite my dismayed girlfriend’s stated misgivings.)
From the weekly “Safer-at-Home” menu, I chose: Gumbo with chicken, andouille and rice ($16); Crab cakes ($18); and “Irish coddle pork loin stew” ($26). I figured these items could be prepped quickly and might travel well. I was told the wait would be 20 minutes. Several other folks came in to pick up phone orders — one with a bottle of wine — as I waited.
Thankfully, my wait was more like 10 minutes when a paper bag was handed to me and I signed off on a tab of $66.15, plus a $12 tip, for a total of $78.15. (No, I do not have an expense account.)
But, my mind was still open and my stomach empty, when I unpacked the bag to face a small cardboard box and two plastic quart containers of murky liquid. No problem! Let’s eat!
The two small crab cakes had more or less dissolved into their bed of overdressed coleslaw. (Still I’m always happy to eat crab and breadcrumbs in whatever format.) The quart containers were unmarked and I opened the one that was less than full thinking it might be the “soup” portion of gumbo rather than the “stew” entrée. Oddly swimming with chunks of carrot, this was the pork “stew” except it had the consistency of a thin pea soup and not a trace of pork.
The “gumbo” only revealed itself with the desultory spoonful of rice at the bottom of the container. Equally thin and lifeless with only a vague hint of spice, this was barely “soup” let alone gumbo. No hint of roux, okra, or file powder. After enduring eight hours or so of the anxious tedium that comes with our new “shelter-in-place” lifestyle, getting baldly ripped off by a local eatery leaves one feeling, well, HANGRY! (My girlfriend’s reaction is unprintable.)
We woke up hangry the next morning, determined to try something else. The new version of Fox’s on North Lake in Altadena had become our go-to local bistro for breakfast and lunch, as well as dinner when they began serving in the evenings, complete with a very brief and very affordable list of wines available by the glass or bottle. Hosted by the affable and ebullient Armando Ortiz, Fox’s always provided a reliably cozy, comforting and modestly priced supper for those nights when we were otherwise incapable of assembling a meal at home. I quickly discovered they had now closed indefinitely.
Not to be discouraged, I recalled that the owners/chefs of Fox’s — Paul Rosenbluh and Monique King — also owned and operated Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock, which they rehabbed prior to taking over Fox’s. Indeed, Cindy’s Diner was open for pickup only and I placed our order: Chicken Gumbo ($7.95); Smoked Mushroom Salad ($13.95); Reuben Sandwich ($13.25); Catfish Po-boy sandwich ($14.75); Side of Mac & Cheese ($4.75); and I swapped in fries for greens with the Po-boy ($2). The short hop to Eagle Rock was about eight minutes and soon I was chatting with Monique and Paul (from a safe distance) as they packed up my order.
They are both accomplished chefs and have a successful local history together. The couple originally met at Chicago’s famed Soul Kitchen, where LA-native Monique had moved, after an extended stint with Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Millikan at City Kitchen. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Paul graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked at Coyote Café in Austin, Texas, before landing in Chicago and Soul Kitchen. Now a couple, they moved to LA to be closer to Monique’s family. Monique again returned to the Feniger/ Millikan camp at both locations of Border Grill and Paul settled in at Bayou Bar & Grill in Alhambra.
Inspired to combine efforts with a place of their own, they opened the beloved Firefly Bistro in South Pasadena, which they ran successfully for 14 years. I was among the satisfied regulars at Firefly and was glum at its closing. Meanwhile, I had heard about the sale and “hipster” rehab of Cindy’s, along with favorable reviews. When Fox’s opened in my neighborhood — allegedly with the Cindy’s team — I was an enthusiastic early adopter. An idle tableside chat with host Armando revealed the fact that Firefly’s King and Rosenbluh were the actual masterminds behind both places.
Cozily unpretentious with reliably tasty food, both venues quickly garnered loyal fans. Needless to say, the couple have figured something out. This includes how they have managed to quickly adapt to the sudden conditions of the pandemic’s arrival here. Paul explained, “I had been anticipating a recession for the last two years…” Accordingly, he and Monique had devised a plan to weather just such a downturn. They closed Fox’s immediately and furloughed most of their employees and concentrated their operation at Cindy’s. Bills were taken off auto-pay and minimum payments go to credit balances. Monique estimated that the extended family of their affected employees number at least 80 people. Still, there is an inspired sense of determination here that suggests eventual victory over the present miseries.
Back home, in the resulting splay of unpacked containers, boxes and bags, we thoroughly enjoyed a generous and satisfying lunch. The tab? Again with a 20 percent tip, the bill totaled $73.54. Roughly the same as the previous evening’s misfire but with twice the food and no residual “hanger.” Oh, and the gumbo yielded a pleasingly robust spicy heft, while the Reuben’s impressive volume sustained another lunch the next day. In all, the meal was a welcome bright spot in an otherwise typically tedious day. A boon, a balm and a blessing, a simple lunch paid for itself in comfort and satiation. Go to Cindy’s.
But I miss Armando!
Try to support your local favorite restaurants in any way you can. The culture is at grave threat.
Chef Dave Chang has coined the truism: “Restaurants are too small to fail.” At the least, please register at saverestaurants.com.
In the meantime, your faithful correspondent will maintain a healthy appetite on your behalf.